Hyper Light Drifter is free on the Epic Store right now, and it’s just the excuse I’ve been waiting for to return to this dark, enchanted world. I haven’t really played Hyper Light Drifter since it came out, so the game that exists in my mind is probably subtly different to the game that sits somewhere on my hard-drive. No matter. In my memory, Hyper Light Drifter is the perfect piece of video game storytelling, and I think the reason for this is sort of perverse and interesting.
Let me be more specific. Hyper Light Drifter strikes me as being the perfect piece of video game environmental storytelling. And to play straw men for a second, I have an idea in my head of how environmental storytelling should probably work in most games. The world of the game should be filled with doodads. Things to click on to get an animation or a reaction, sure, but also text files, audio logs, emails carefully salted with spelling mistakes, desk furniture with pictures of absent people’s cats, material culture to pick through and collect and examine later on in some menu or other.
In my mind, Hyper Light Drifter has none of that. Or almost none of it. I can’t be sure, but I don’t really remember reading very much as I played through this game, working further and further into a world where nature was increasingly corrupted by some grim form of technology. I don’t remember triggering any audio logs and learning (one of four) about someone’s first day working in a sinister government instalment. I don’t remember uncovering a chain of memos, or an ancient series of tablets listing episodic prophecies. (I do remember the very odd conversation, which played out in static images, and taken as a whole were one of the game’s rare weak elements.)
Instead, I was largely left to explore a mute world whose landscape was there to be looked at, and hopefully considered, whose meanings were meant to be teased out entirely outside of the game itself. I remember trying to work out what an installation might have been made for, why a skeleton might have ended up in a specific place, and why a village might have built itself around the inhospitable base of a mountain – and why, subsequently, it might have fallen into ruin.
My favourite part of Hyper Light Drifter takes place high up somewhere, in a suite of rooms that slowly transforms into a library. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t read any of the books on the shelves, but I still loved being there all the same. It always takes me a while to remember that Hyper Light Drifter is actually a pretty frantic, occasionally exhausting, action game – that the screen is generally littered with stuff that wants to kill you.
But then I remember that you can clear all that out, and beneath it the world is waiting, silent and wordless, for you to piece its story back together in your own imagination.